Flip your Format!
It’s been a very long time since I last blogged. Following the Kickstarter campaign for Take The Kingdom in 2018, I took a bit of break from the world of board games (other than just playing them). Since then, I’ve been spending a lot of time working on new games designs, a lot more time improving some old designs, and generally planning out what the main projects are going to be for me and for Walnut Games over the next year or so. More to come on those projects in future blogs! For now, I wanted to re-start this blog by talking about designing games and some of the issues and lessons that arise from that.
One technique I’ve found really helpful lately is flipping the format of your game to look at it from a different perspective. So, whatever your game currently is (big box game, card game, tile-layer etc), try changing the format into something different, and understand what that would mean for your design.
Perhaps your game is meant to be a big-box extravaganza – so what happens if you flip the format: Supposing you had to make it a 54-card game, or a roll & write, or a print & play? Or what if the retail price had to come in under 20 dollars, or you could only use half the components you had in mind? You quickly find yourself trimming mechanisms, systems and more. Sometimes this will come about through necessity – maybe playtesting has shown that your game takes too long, or that people would probably not play what you hoped they would, or that it’s just not tight enough. But it’s also an exercise you can do yourself, in a controlled environment, to help you understand which aspects of your game are absolutely essential, and which can maybe afford to be let go.
I think quite a few fellow designers have been doing this lately – if you’re a BoardGameGeek regular then you might have seen the recent ‘Roll and Write’ Design contest, for which over 80 new games have been submitted. Several of those (including our own mountaineering-themed game Makalu) have been converted from previous formats, and in some cases will be converted back again afterwards. Contests like this are a great way to join up with other designers, to expose your designs to a new audience, get great feedback and ultimately learn from a community of fantastic designers out there. I’m personally not a massive fan of playing RNWs but it’s been a really interesting exercise to ‘force’ a design into that format, and also to see how other designers have tackled that challenge.
It’s a common principle in Engineering that your aim is to make a design as lean and as spare as possible, with nothing extraneous, and the same can be applied to game designs. You might have heard the famous quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Okay, so maybe you’re not aiming for perfection, but you can still avoid a bloated design.
This will probably feel quite uncomfortable, as you’ll be trimming away elements of the game that you’re personally invested in, that you probably feel are essential, and that you might well feel are part of the fun. And of course everyone thinks their game is great! But try it and see what happens. There’s a phrase in publishing/editing circles – the ‘Benign Tumour’. This is a passage or chapter that can be entirely removed from its hosting organism (the book, or in this case the game) without causing any harm to the host. Are you sure your combat system, movement algorithm or AI isn’t one of those?
That’s not to say you shouldn’t make your game lavish – by all means have luxurious components and the highest-quality game pieces – but that’s for the production stage, not the design stage. It’s quite common now, particularly in Kickstarter campaigns for board games, to have a basic version of the game (to use a grim corporate phrase, essentially the Minimum Viable Product or MVP for the game), but to also have a super-deluxe version, with acrylic tiles, wooden pieces, metal coins, the finest cardstock and so on, but the art is to have the design as lean as it can be before you improve the spec of the components. Then let your backers choose which version they want.
So flipping the format is a useful exercise as part of your design process, but you might actually find that your new format is even better than the one you’d originally had in mind. Even if you go back to your original format afterwards, you’ll do so with a much better idea of what you must keep, what you could trim, and how you can make sure there’s nothing in your game that doesn’t really need to be there. And of course, you can build the game back up again afterwards, adding more in if necessary, but you’re starting from a point in the design cycle where you know the game was as lean as it could be at that point.
So try flipping your format, and see how you get on!